Column: The Public Eye: Exploring the Politics of Trust

By Bob Burnett
Tuesday October 16, 2007

Most Americans don’t trust their government. A recent Gallup poll found “Americans generally express less trust in the federal government than at any point in the past decade, and trust in many federal government institutions is now lower than it was during the Watergate era.” Only 43 percent of poll respondents trust President Bush and 50 percent do not trust Congress. 

After Iraq, healthcare, and the economy, Americans rank lack of trust in their government as the number four problem facing the United States. Specific reasons include: “Congress not doing anything” (9 percent), “Government has wrong priorities” (8 percent), “[President] Bush is doing a poor job” (8 percent), “Corruption/scandals in government/lack of ethics” (5 percent), and “Political leaders not working together/bickering/too partisan” (3 percent). Over the past twelve months, the trust issue has gradually gained importance and now outranks immigration, education, and global climate change, among others. 

Two-thirds of Americans say they are “dissatisfied with the way America is being governed”—the highest dissatisfaction rating in 34 years. However, there’s a striking difference in level of satisfaction based on party affiliation: only 18 percent of Democrats and independents are satisfied, compared to 63 percent of Republicans. 

What impact will this sharply divided perspective have on the outcome of the 2008 election? Will the fact that President Bush and the GOP are viewed negatively by two-thirds of Americans translate into a Democratic landslide? Or will lack of trust in the Bush Administration be mediated by the fact that many Americans aren’t satisfied with the Democratically controlled Congress, either?  

Democratic strategists believe the trust issue will work in their favor. The latest poll results indicate that 53 percent of respondents have a favorable opinion of Democrats compared to only 38 percent who view Republicans positively. Based upon this “favorability gap,” many Democratic leaders predict a blue landslide in 2008 when Democrats will capture the White House and win big majorities in the House and Senate. 

However, judging from the sentiments expressed by left-coast Democratic activists, Democratic leaders may be underestimating the extent of deep-blue discontent. Many long-time Democrats are deeply disturbed by what they feel is a betrayal of trust by some Democratic leaders: in 2006 these loyalists worked hard to ensure Democratic victories in the House and Senate believing Dems would use their new legislative power to stop the war. And they haven’t.  

These feelings of betrayal are not limited to the war in Iraq. In a July Gallup Poll 36 percent of respondents thought Congress should institute impeachment proceedings against the President. Most poll participants judged Bush on his conduct of the Iraq war, but a significant percentage described him as someone who lies, doesn’t listen, and has no regard for the Constitution. These strong feelings about the President haven’t gone away. But over the last ten months, many deep-blue activists stuffed their desire for impeachment after Democratic leaders told them, in effect, that Congress could only do one thing at a time: focus on impeachment or stop the war. They gritted their teeth and said: Okay. As long as you stop this awful war, we’ll give up our call for impeachment.  

But Democrats haven’t stopped the war. Now, many loyalists feel their leaders played them for fools. As a result, they don’t trust Congress. 

The trust issue could have several different impacts on the 2008 election. It’s likely to affect voter turnout: in the 2004 election, only 61 percent of eligible voters actually cast a ballot. There could be an even lower turnout in 2008, as more Americans see their vote as meaningless and complain: I don’t trust politicians; there’s no difference between the two parties. 

There’s likely to be an impact on fundraising. Even though Republicans doggedly support President Bush, GOP fundraising lags behind that of Democrats. At the moment, Democrats have raised 50 percent more than have Republicans. If this trend continues, Dems should pick up at least four more seats in both the House and Senate. 

However, the trust issue could also have a negative impact on Democratic fundraising. Many disaffected deep-blue activists threaten to change the pattern of their donations: rather than give to umbrella organizations such as the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) or the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC), there’s talk they will only fund candidates who voted to stop the war. That means for example, they would send money to Congresswoman Barbara Lee or her PAC that supports antiwar candidates. It means they would not send money to the re-election campaign of Louisiana Senator Mary Landrieu, one of the most conservative of Democratic Senators. On the other hand, the deep-blue activists would support Congressman Tom Allen in his bid to win the Senate seat in Maine because he is reliably anti-war. 

It’s clear Americans are dissatisfied with their national government and don’t trust the leaders of either party. It remains to be seen how this will affect the 2008 election, but it’s an issue that’s unlikely to go away. 



Bob Burnett is a Berkeley writer. He can be reached at